“It’s really important to recognize that this is not just an Africa problem,” said Kerry Kennedy during a telephone interview from New York. “It’s a problem wherever it happens in the world.”
Kennedy spoke to the Blade amid the ongoing global outrage over Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision in February to sign his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.
Museveni in January told Kennedy, two of her organization’s staffers and Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a meeting in the Ugandan city of Entebbe that he planned to reject what he described as the “fascist” bill his country’s Parliament approved late last year.
Kennedy told the Blade she was “very disappointed” when Museveni signed the measure into law.
“He looked me in the eye and said I am not going to sign this because it is a fascist law,” she said, noting Ugandan lawmakers had not approved the bill since its 2009 introduction because she feels Museveni effectively blocked it. “So I was very disappointed and he said that not only to me and to the delegation from the RFK Center, but we had Archbishop Tutu on the phone, so he said that to him as well. We were all very disappointed.”
Politicians back anti-LGBT laws to ‘distract’ from ‘hard problems’
Uganda is among the more than 70 countries in which homosexuality remains criminalized.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in January signed a draconian bill into law that, among other things, punishes those who enter into a same-sex marriage with up to 14 years in prison. Those convicted of homosexuality in Brunei will face death by stoning under a portion of the oil-rich Southeast Asian country’s new penal code based on Islamic Shariah law that is slated to take effect next year.
Gambian lawmakers last month approved a measure that would impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality.” The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is among the groups that have urged Chadian President Idriss Déby to reject a proposed amendment to his country’s penal code that would criminalize homosexuality.
Lawmakers in Lithuania and Kyrgyzstan over the last year have introduced measures similar to a Russian law that bans so-called gay propaganda to minors. Anti-LGBT violence and discrimination remain pervasive throughout Latin America and eastern Europe in spite of recent legal advances.
The Ugandan Constitutional Court last month struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act, ruling Parliamentarian Speaker Rebecca Kadaga allowed a vote on the measure to take place without the necessary quorum. Lawmakers subsequently said they plan to reintroduce the proposal.
“Part of the reason that this is happening in Africa is because leaders are political and they’re listening to their constituents,” said Kennedy in response to the Blade’s question about why African heads of state continue to support these anti-LGBT measures. “The easiest way to gain popularity is to appeal to people’s anger and rage and hatred.”
“It’s a lot, a lot easier to rally your troops around their hatred than actually address the fact that you have failed to give them drinking water or education or health care for their children,” she added. “Those are hard problems. So if you can distract them with stirring up homophobia, that’s the easiest way to get elected.”
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in 2011 honored Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, for his work in the East African country.
The Center for Constitutional Rights in 2012 filed a federal lawsuit against Scott Lively, an evangelical pastor who is running to succeed Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda for allegedly exploiting anti-gay attitudes in the East African country before Parliamentarian David Bahati in 2009 introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
Kennedy told the Blade she feels Uganda’s anti-LGBT rights record continues to receive more attention than those of other nations because there is a “very strong advocacy community” in the country with “a handful of very strong people.”
“Frank Mugisha is an extraordinary human being,” she said. “I think that really helps and makes a difference.”
Timing of U.S. sanctions against Uganda ‘slow’
The White House in June announced a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for human rights abuses — including those directed towards the country’s LGBT residents — and “significant public corruption.” The Obama administration also redirected funds away from the Ugandan Police Force and other local institutions that support the Anti-Homosexuality Act and cancelled an American-sponsored military exercise in the East African country.
“The sanctions did not cut humanitarian aid; they do not hurt regular Ugandans and they do not single out LGBT rights,” Kennedy told the Blade. “Those are really three important pieces of it, but they place LGBT rights in the broader human rights context.”
While Kennedy applauded the Obama administration for imposing sanctions on Museveni’s government, she described the timing of the White House’s announcement as “very, very slow.”
“The U.S. government had four years to prepare for the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and should have had a clear policy in place,” said Kennedy. “They didn’t. We didn’t and therefore we were caught on our heels.”
She also told the Blade that human rights were not highlighted enough during last month’s summit in D.C. that drew nearly 50 African heads of state to the nation’s capital.
“The point of that summit was to increase economic exchanges between the United States and African countries,” said Kennedy. “It wasn’t a human rights summit. It was an economic summit. The mistake that they make is to think that somehow you can separate rights issues from economic issues and of course that’s pure folly for all sorts of reasons as we’ve seen now with Uganda.”
She said she is a “big believer of meeting people and talking to people” in response to a question about criticism Obama received over his decision to invite Museveni, Jonathan, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh and other anti-LGBT African heads of state to the White House during the summit.
“I think it’s good to talk and I think it’s good for people to mix and I think it’s good for them to be challenged,” said Kennedy. “I don’t mind President Obama inviting them to the White House. What I do mind is inviting them to come and not talking about the issue. It’s fine to have the discussion, but you have to have the discussion. You can’t just invite them and not talk about it.”
Kennedy further stressed she would like to see the U.S. to impose sanctions on other countries with anti-LGBT rights record similar to those brought against Uganda.
“The lesson learned here is that the Uganda review process should be institutionalized to any kind of country that takes further action to criminalize homosexuality or pass new anti-LGBTI laws, especially those that amount to persecution under international law,” she said.